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Narrativized

Christopher Linforth

I

When I first started writing essays I wasn’t really writing essays. I barely knew what the term meant or what the parameters were for what I was attempting to accomplish. I was ten, though. Or perhaps eleven. I remember in history class we were given thick textbooks that had been at the school for generations. Scrawled across the pages were crude drawings of naked women: voluptuous, big-haired, dead-eyed—a kind of Playboy palimpsest. The teacher told us to ignore the graffiti and to focus on the words. We were studying the causes of the First World War; how all of those European countries could have converged into a destructive genesis, a beginning of war. The book told a story—albeit in the essay form—of Franz Ferdinand, train timetables, the Schlieffen Plan, jingoism, imperial dreams. History had been rendered into narrative. From where I sat in the classroom these weren’t competing theories of causality, but parts of the story—they added the drama. When it came to me writing an essay on this subject, I retold facts and names and places as though I were Borges’s Pierre Menard rewriting Don Quixote. My thesis was from the book. My supporting evidence was from the book. My conclusion was from the book. The whole thing was handwritten on four loose sheets of lined paper and turned in with my name printed at the top. Class moved onto the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler. By the time we had memorized the events of the Beer Hall Putsch, the teacher had finally graded the papers. Marked in scarlet was an A.


II

At some point during my undergraduate career I learned that ancient Greek drama was predicated on a three-part structure. Exposition, rising action, and resolution were banded around the classroom as though art could be so easily condensed. The professor talked of the multiple structures and models—Aristotle’s six elements, Elizabethan five-acts, the Fichtean Curve—working to appease our worth, to create a sense of our place in the world. He drilled into us that however you defined the structure it did, in some manner, contain a beginning, middle, and an end. When he mentioned catastrophe I perked up. Depending on your artistic inclinations this type of finale can draw out the virtue in change or make clear that any change is nullified. An uneasy sense of this latter finality reminds me of Hemingway’s précis that stories hurtle toward death. And, yet, somewhere there has to be a continuation of life. The first time I wrote an essay I was in Kansas and it was morning. I was still reeling from a stroll across the prairie, my boots crunching over switchgrass and my vision full of sprawling fields and the swallow-tailed kite cruising on the thermals. I typed a few thousand words about the land and my relocation to the area and to memories of childhood. Ideas spiraled, ejecting themes and unspoken connections. I became lost in the text, not knowing where to stop or how to shape the piece. Eventually, I deleted the essay and handed in some generic sliver of autobiography, some recollection of my early life.


III

For years I have been writing fiction, churning out dozens of short stories and three excretable novels, which I am glad to report, remain unpublished. Over time, though, my life has morphed into a three-act story, and now entering my middle years I am increasingly concerned with the last part. Perhaps many fiction writers transpose narrative structure onto life. All of those people, events, coincidences, transformed into meaning—essential elements in the individual schema. I sometimes feel as though I am suffering with a mild strain of depersonalization disorder. The dissociation of feeling from the world around me, my self a character in a Paul Auster novel, one of the better ones—say, The New York Trilogy. It is catastrophe, though, that I am circumventing. Depersonalization allows a negation of trauma, even perceived damage. Treatment for the condition exists in benzodiazepine and naltrexone hydrochloride or even a prolonged bout of cognitive behavior therapy. I have found in the exploratory essay another way to deal with the narrativization of life. The genre offers a different sense of structure, a meandering line of philosophizing that creates diversionary oxbows and shimmering waterfalls. Space and time unfold within thought, allowing the scouring examination of a series of cascading subjects and arrangements of memory. Dillard, Biss, Shields, D’Agata, radically alter ideas of narrative symmetry, pushing the form beyond a recognizable stopping point. History becomes multivalent, contradictory. The essays I write these days don’t bear much resemblance to those early efforts. On the page I saunter through a mirrored treasure-house of words, hoping in some way to sidestep story, to prevent disconnection from the world and a solipsistic end.